August 2022

Self On Self | Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazinel | August 2022 | www.scene4.com

Self on Self

Renate Stendhal

When I moved from Paris to California in 1986, I had not yet published a book, but had written diaries from age twelve. I had never been in therapy and couldn't imagine yet that I would become a therapist myself. I began to awaken to the fact that my diaries were "work books" for the craft of writing and that they served as a continuous self-analysis. I wrote my entries in German, French or English according to the mood of the moment. Looking back now at these notes I am faced with the translator's dilemma of never quite finding the right word to do my younger self justice. The following excerpt was written in German and translated by me as best I could. 


Diary, Caf茅 in  San Francisco --  March 17, 1987


I noticed a mother with a four or five year-old boy and a baby girl of about one entering the caf茅. The boy went to a table while the mother pushed her stroller toward the counter to place her order. The girl pointed urgently at the table. "You'd like to sit there?" She lifted the baby onto a chair next to her brother. The girl was satisfied.


I noticed how pale and sad the boy looked whereas the girl was round and radiant. Oh dear, I thought, the well-known sibling drama. The boy was driving a little toy car with a trailer across the table. He seemed listless. Every now and then he cast a black look at his little sister. Perhaps he was trying to stir her envy, but she sat there with her bottle and no care in the world. At some point he disconnected the trailer and started driving it toward her, haltingly as if not sure of his intention. She touched the trailer eagerly, and he let her do it. She had no reaction when he hooked car and trailer up again and continued driving them back and forth.


 The mother joined the table. The boy was now half lying on his arm, looking sad and suffering. It struck me how much the girl looked like her mother. The boy, by contrast, seemed to have nothing in common with her.


I watched with amazement how tenderly this mother tended to the boy. To both kids. The girl seemed not to need much more than her mother's presence. Each attempt to engage her mother received a ready response. With her dark head of dark just like the mother's, the girl was holding onto her chair, looking around dreamily, with blue-eyed contentment.


The boy kept lying on his arm while the mother talked to him quietly and stroked him. She was very tender and a fine smile  appeared on his lips, but he had the same inconsolable eyes. Maybe he is sick, I wondered, deadly sick. I saw how he kept casting his black, apprehensive look at his sister. No, I thought, he isn't necessarily sick. He is perhaps soul-sick – but what is the difference?


For a while, all three played with money. The girl was allowed to take a dollar note. She held it with both hands, straightened it as delicately as a flower, and inspected it. "Will you give it back to me?" the mother asked. "Thank you." "I get the dollar," the boy said. "Mum, I get the dollar and Eva can get the coins." Eva let her bottle drop to the floor. The boy went obediently and stiffly to retrieve it.


Perhaps it doesn't help to have a tender mother, I thought. Watching her talk to him I felt at the edge of tears. Was she explaining to him that she loved him even though the baby sister was there and it couldn't be helped?


There is something inconsolable in human existence and at his age, when a child already knows all about it, the only help would be a mother who also knows it (still knows it) and acknowledges it. Which mine did not.


My mother couldn't bear, not at all bear, that so much of life was inconsolable. She didn't have the trust or insight. Didn't have a coordination system reaching beyond her. She needed to be everything and give everything. Deluded heart. Never allowed to be helpless: she would get angry and rage against whatever or whoever made her feel helpless. Only once in my childhood, when she herself was the cause, did I see her cry. During the Berlin Blockade, a time of penury, she had helped loading a car and forgotten that she had set her bag with the money and food stamps for the whole family on the roof of the car.


Is this why I tend to lose my things – in solidarity? In a make- believe of still needing her? My therapist commented that I was identified with the boy at the table. Yes, I agreed. The child who can't console the mother is what made me so sad.


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Scene4 Magazine - Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2022 Renate Stendhal
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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